First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Spring came early this year in central North Carolina and brought with it exceptionally warm temperatures, arriving by the middle of February after a winter that was exceptionally cold and snowy. The pairing of exceptional warmth with exceptional cold may seem unusual, but it’s more easily understood if you think of it as a climatic fever. When you have a fever, your temperature is elevated, yet your body experiences chills as it attempts to fight off infection. This is precisely the situation in which our planet finds itself, attempting to deflect the worst ravages of industrial extraction by hobbling the climate on which industry depends for ease of extraction and transportation. In the process, however, there are numerous side-effects which most media outlets conveniently blame on the natural world rather than the extractive industries which are truly responsible for destabilizing the climate.

This pattern of climatic destabilization – which includes the undermining of established patterns of temperature and precipitation globally – is an increasingly common phenomenon throughout our world and represents another aspect of climate change. Though most people are hesitant to speak the truth on this matter, the fact remains. What we’re seeing isn’t merely a momentary aberration; it’s the transition to a new and highly inhospitable global climate, in which our world will be irrevocably altered for the worst, whether we like it or not.

At Occoneechee Mountain, this climatic transition was more subdued on my first visit of 2018 than it was in 2017. In 2017, there were flowering plants of every stripe putting forth new growth by January. When I visited Occoneechee Mountain in February of this year on the other hand, there were comparatively few flowering plants in bloom. There were some, however, and there were other signs of spring to be found as well, despite the fact that spring in central North Carolina doesn’t typically arrive until the beginning of April at the earliest.

When I arrived at Occoneechee Mountain on the last Sunday of February, the clouds were overcast and gloomy, telling of the torrential and unseasonable rainstorms that have recently become common in central North Carolina during the winter months. The land was still drenched from the latest rainstorm, and with temperatures in the 60s it felt more like April than February. I got out of my car, started hiking the Mountain Loop Trail, and tried to keep solid footing on ground that might as well have been the last remains of a mud pit.

Aware of the mud and careful of my footing as a result, I crossed the north and west sides of Occoneechee Mountain without difficulty. The deciduous trees were still mostly bare, though buds were starting to appear on many of the maples and dogwoods. The pines were stately and serene, lending the lion’s share of green that could be seen on most stretches of the trail. There were, however, other patches of green here and there. As I progressed down the trail, those patches became more prevalent on the forest floor, and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop in my tracks and take a closer look.

What I found when I took a closer look was a strikingly beautiful yellow and red flower that loosely resembled a columbine and had unmistakably distinctive maroon leaves with green spots flecked across the surface. I was baffled as to the identity of the flower, since I’ve never seen it at Occoneechee Mountain in years past and have certainly never seen it in a domestic garden. At a later date I was able to identify it as a yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which I learned through a bit of research has a tendency to remain dormant for most of the year, thereby explaining why I had never noticed it before.

There are in fact only about ten weeks of the year when the plant is active, during which time each individual yellow trout lily will produce either one leaf with no flower or two leaves with one flower. Though there are reputedly only about five percent of plants with flowers in any yellow trout lily colony at a time, the profusion of tiny yellow and red flowers at my feet left me wondering if there was a single square inch of the forest floor where these plants weren’t already residing.

Walking past the largest profusion of yellow trout lilies along the north side of Occoneechee Mountain where it skirts the Eno River, I noticed faint ruins of a mill race that used to adjoin the Quarry. The ruins of the mill race followed the course of the trail at this point, and it was only after walking north of the trail and looking back that I was able to discern a better view. The presence of the mill race was more readily visible on this visit because of the vibrant green moss blanketing the ruins, which seemed to have greater intensity of color after the latest rainstorms.

As I passed from the ruins of the mill race up the side of the mountain toward the Overlook, I decided to stop and admire the view. Though it was marred by the clearcut of an electric line extending to the north and south, it was refreshing to see so much land that’s still in a reasonably natural state. The fact that Occoneechee Mountain is directly adjacent to downtown Hillsborough, North Carolina, is one of the park’s biggest assets, since the town of Hillsborough is generally vigilant in its preservation of historic sites – of which Occoneechee Mountain is one of the foremost. However being in close proximity to a town that’s expanding in population and housing brings with it the imminent risk that much of the surrounding terrain will be significantly degraded and will cause harm to the mountain by extension. As a result my feelings are increasingly ambivalent when I look in the distance from Occoneechee Mountain.

Regardless of any ambivalence about housing, I love the views and the land itself, and it wasn’t long before I was hiking the last stretch of Mountain Loop Trail in quest of the amazing view from the Overlook. When I reached the crossing of Mountain Loop Trail and Overlook Trail, I switched from the former to the latter and continued the last portion of my ascent before coming into view of the fenced-in area at the edge of the old Quarry that provides the most memorable view in the whole of the park. The clouds were still overcast and were threatening to downpour at any moment; similarly I was drenched from my own perspiration as a result of hiking in such warm springlike temperatures. None of that mattered, however, when I reached the edge of the Overlook and the high point of my hike.

After taking time to relish the view from the Overlook, I returned to the trail and descended Occoneechee Mountain. The forest surrounded me on all sides again, and it was easy to forget that an expanding town and a major interstate were both less than a mile away from my location. I passed the lone house in the park, where the park ranger lives, and reached the last stretch of trail before the parking lot. As I came into view of the parking lot, I noticed one other telltale sign of spring: a bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) in full bloom.

These trees are frequently the first to indicate the arrival of spring, and this one in particular left no doubt in my mind about how quickly the world around us is being irrevocably altered in front of our very eyes, whether we like it or not.


Erythronium americanum,” Missouri Botanical Garden, accessed March 7th, 2018

Callery pear (Bradford pear), Pyrus calleryana,”, accessed March 7th, 2018,

36 thoughts on “First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

  1. Thanks for another interesting ramble and for a preview of spring. Glad that you had a meeting with the trout lily, a plant that’s more common in northern sectors such as where I live. It’s named for the color pattern of its leaf, resembling the back of a wild brook trout. Enjoy these things while you can. The changes are happening.

    1. Very true, my friend. I treat every hike as if it will be my last any more. There’s no guarantee of how long these places will last or how long they will be able to withstand so much degradation.

  2. Interesting. March the 1st was the official start of our Autumn (yes that season before Winter) yet mid February the first spring bulbs were sending up their green tendrils through the ground in my front yard. There are other varieties now up and growing. Our human use (misuse) of the planet is presenting these visible signs of the way our climate is changing. Our Prime Minister and your President for either or both of political and stupidity reasons refuse to acknowledge the impact human kind is having. When I was born there were about 2-3 billion people and now there are 7 billion (and I am not old!) – only the mindless will not appreciate how that impacts the earth’s resources.

    1. Absolutely. It takes an ongoing act of infantile collective suicidality to perpetuate the kind of mess that industrial society has created. More needs to be done to stop it, and this blog is one way in which I try to do that.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I love these pictures! Definitely an interesting discussion on how quickly our world climate is changing. Even further north here in Pittsburgh, just a week and a half ago the weather was nearly 70 degrees, and I could comfortably go for a walk in shorts. Now, it’s snowed again, which makes it feel even stranger that we had a stretch of such warm days in February.

    1. I agree. There’s so much in the natural world that’s deserving of our love and respect. And by loving and respecting this Earth, we would only be increasing our happiness and health in the long run. It’s the definition of a win-win.

  4. I recently hiked through Oconeechee down to the Eno. That was my inaugural hike on that trail, and I absolutely loved it. The view of old Hillsborough is lovely. This is a great post, and it’s always fun to read someone else’s perspectives on places I know.

  5. Very well said. It surprises me that even among those of us who spend our time out observing the natural world, I still find climate change deniers. How can they not see it? In the end, of course, it matters not whether they believe it is happening. The good news is that, even with Trump at the helm, solar and wind energy still improves, and efforts to clean up the oceans are increasing.

  6. I think this is the first clear explanation of global warming I have read. There used to be a camp occoneechee for Girl Scouts when I was younger (way before probably even your parents) I attended a couple of summers. I remember particularly the scent of pine. It was so beautiful!

  7. Lovely pictures. How did the temperatures and timing of spring compare to past records for your area? We had an unusually cold and dry winter and an unusually cold and late start to spring up here at the 51st parallel. Yet if you check the records the 1970s were also cold in the same way. The old-timers around me say it was even colder in the 1930s, much colder, and records bear that observation out. So while to us a 40 year cycle might seem extreme in the scale of our lifespans, it is not that unusual on a scale of decades. That’s why I am asking if your early spring is record breaking.

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